Digital upgrades boost Foley range

New tools give artists, mixers more options

Foley artists and mixers offer a mantra that’s almost diametrically opposed to the “show me” nature of Hollywood — please don’t notice me.

It’s the job of those working on Foley stages, after all, to add the everyday sounds that movie viewers take for granted. Door slams, footsteps, cell phone rings, key jingles, clothing rustle — the list goes on to include just about everything from the imperceptible to the obvious.

Adding touches of sonic reality to movie soundtracks started with Jack Foley generations ago. The invisible art has continued to evolve with a host of award-winning audio professionals who are dedicated to adding clarity with a number of new digital tools and tricks.

Indeed, while the creation of Foley effects has changed little, the tools have improved by leaps and bounds.

“Digital equipment has given me more options,” declares 25-year veteran Gary Hecker, supervising Foley artist at Sony Pictures in Los Angeles. “The equipment I use alters sound in certain ways, drops it in octaves, makes it bigger or gives it more depth to get giant, dynamic sounds that in the old days no one was doing.”

Hecker and his Foley compatriots turn to gear that includes sound effects processors, reverb units, equalizers and pitch shifters. Often Foley mixers will utilize sonic bending software programs called plug-ins within a digital audio workstation, such as Digidesign Pro Tools.

In addition to added creativity, these digital tools have increased the speed of the Foley process.

Phil Stockton, vice president of C5, a sound editing facility in New York City, points out that now editors can begin adjusting tracks immediately. “That ability removes any questions about sync or how it’s going to sound with the production track,” he says. “We record right into Pro Tools and can see it, hear it and adjust it right off the bat.”

That doesn’t mean that Foley is a whiz-bang-boom proposition. Many big-budget productions still offer Foley artists up to six weeks of time for creation and editing of the tracks.

“The interesting thing about Foley is that even though the technology changes in terms of the recording process, the actual process of Foley artistry is still the same,” says Skywalker Sound sound designer Tom Myers. “We have to think (about sound) in ways that aren’t literal to do something unique.”

Adding personality to a specific movement is the spirit of Foley and that takes both time and talent. It’s not something that can be done with a CD of sound effects, these pros report.

“People have tried to do this on machines, but Foley is mimicking actions,” Hecker says. “Some of it you can do, but it doesn’t have that human touch and that human rhythm behind it. There is something organic about having a human do it.”

Yet, there are some who are looking to the future of Foley, including Warner Bros. Foley artist John Roesch. “I think in the television world we will see digital Foley make inroads and possibly become the norm,” he says. “But for features, it does not yet, nor will I think it anytime soon, have soul.”

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